Jonathan Rowson

Dark Hope and the Climate Crisis

Why aren't we rising up? Because the effects of climate change are distant in four dimensions: not here, not now, not me, and not clear. But here’s the dark hope: It is here. It is now. It is me. And it is clear.

Climate Change


For those able to feel the meaning of the news, the message of the sixth IPCC assessment report from August 2021 was harrowing. Our best climate scientists said the harm humans have done to our habitat is ‘unequivocal’ and ‘unprecedented’. We are already too late in some ways, and still too slow in others, which is why Rupert Read’s emphasis on ‘transformative adaptation’ in the recent Perspectiva essay What next on climate? The need for a new moderate flank is such an important shift of perspective. Paradoxically it is only by preparing for what can no longer be prevented that we might yet avoid something even worse.

Like the famous Sherlock Holmes case of the dog that didn’t bark, the most important message of the 2021 assessment report is the one that is not there. The message that jumps out to me above all others is that previous IPCC reports, going back to 1990, have not been heeded. Where is the report on that? Because that’s the one we really need.

Where is the report with IPCC level rigour and authority that explains the gap between what we know and what we do at scale? Where is the widely reported executive summary that highlights the glaring absence of the pre-political We invoked by scientists (and the urgency to create one, as indicated by Rupert)? Where is the public awareness campaign on the competing commitments arising from democratic mandates? Where is the world stage where we grapple with endemic corruption that breaches trust, cultural conditioning that binds us to our consumer trance, and targeted technological addiction that keeps us diverted? Where are the day time television conversations about how fascinating and tragic it is that we get in our way, and what it might take to get out of it?

Perspectiva’s work is climate activism in disguise. We call ourselves an urgent one-hundred-year project as a serious joke to reflect a paradoxical phenomenon: ecological peril has been an enduring emergency for decades, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Those who say we don’t have time to rethink society, we just need to decarbonise or ‘throw everything at it’ are not paying close enough attention to why that has not already happened, nor to the intensity of what’s coming. Everything humanity does to and for itself, all the struggles for power, all the battles for resources, all the technological breakthroughs, all the cries for help – everything over these coming decades will be set within the all-too-real theatre of climate collapse.

Perspectiva’s central concern is not in clamouring for action, because action can be good or bad, it will happen anyway, often has unintended consequences, and tends to be short-lived. Instead, we attend to the convergence of challenges across different features of life – systems, souls and society – and create outputs and practices that seek to help overcome our collective immunity to change. That work involves looking at our social imaginary – the widest possible grasp of our whole predicament – and considering what it means for competing commitments and hidden assumptions within and between people at scale.

Such work is beyond us, but it’s necessary and we invite people to grow into it. One of the hardest things to grasp about climate collapse is that it’s singular and calls for a singular response. Climate collapse is implicated in too many spheres of life to be merely an environmental issue. It is not like the hole in the ozone layer that was relatively easy to fix, because it is not happening in one place, nor arising from one cause. Climate collapse is not a war, because most of us are on too many sides at once, though it may well call for a martial spirit. Climate collapse is not like an asteroid hurtling towards earth, when questions of root causes and vested interests would not arise. Nor is climate collapse a mere problem, because it is not clearly defined, localised, discrete and time-limited, but vexed, global, porous and inter-generational. It’s a predicament.

As many expected, COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 was a failure. I don’t say that with any righteous glee or judgment. Political leaders are often plutocratic, even kleptocratic, and sometimes they are both even when they are democratic. They should – in the moral sense – do all they can and more on climate. Yet they come to international conferences tethered to personal and national interests and to electoral mandates. Even if they reach binding agreements over decades, what can really tie the hands of almost 200 countries over many electoral cycles. We can and must prioritise the long term over the short term, but there will always be countervailing pressure.

And so it comes back to root, the people who put the politicians where they are, or allow them to remain there. That’s all the more reason to re-examine what the initial success of XR in shifting public mood around April 2019 means today. There was a moment where it felt like the movement’s agency became hyper-agency, where climate action was no longer about isolated plots but a shift in the overall setting, when legacy media were paying attention and the public at large were at least curious; it felt like society might after all be waking up. 

In light of that encouraging but all-too-temporary success, what can we learn from XR’s subsequent tactical errors, weakness for moral purity and misplaced strategic assumptions? Social movement theory stemming from the history of civil resistance is valuable and relevant, but it risks being pseudo-strategic and is not nearly as clever as it sounds if you are not paying attention to the specificity of climate change. 

Secondly, and ultimately more radically, in the etymological sense of ‘forming the root’, in his Perspectiva essay Rupert Read writes for the much wider spectrum of people who care deeply about responding to climate collapse but don’t quite know how to do it. The latent power of this group, which he describes as a potential ‘moderate flank’, is enormous, but it is unlike the climate movement we currently have even when its breadth and variety is acknowledged. 

The author Alice Bell once wrote that ‘the people need to rise before the seas do’, and that might well be right. Yet how will they rise? The people of the moderate flank are busy, they may not be political by nature, they may not be radical or even progressive in outlook, they won’t see themselves as campaigners or activists, and they won’t identify with the moral rightness of gluing themselves to bridges to stop traffic, nor valorise getting arrested.

I believe it is undeniably true that this wide flank of people need to be mobilised in some way, but they are not yet any kind of ‘flank’ in the movement or military metaphor sense, and they look upon XR’s efforts with mixed feelings at best. On the one hand there has been support for the clarion call to wake up to the urgency and scale of a global collective action challenge, and a recognition that what is called for is a deeper reckoning that goes beyond net-zero pledges and policy tweaks. And many people know that this reckoning requires extraordinary measures, whether that’s dancing in technicolour to shake us from our habit energy or disrupting daily life to remind us of its forsaken ecological premise. This recognition is what led Rowan Williams to say: ‘It might just work’.

On the other hand, the initial desire of XR to be post-political and to build a large alliance of actors across society does not seem to have happened. Many people remain inspired by the civil disobedience that may be necessary, but others have become alienated or demotivated. The Canning Town action of disrupting a commuter tube in October 2019 was XR’s nadir, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted perspective and priorities, and XR’s model of self-organisation has led to various forms of internecine conflict. Whatever happens to XR, whether it dies or fractures or mutates or is reborn like a phoenix, is not really the point, because this is not about XR as such, but about what they have wrought. Rupert argues that it is precisely the role of the radical flank to create space for the moderate flank to arise.

The details remain unclear, but the moderate flank might well generate and organise itself because it realises beyond doubt that it has to. When I first started writing about climate collapse at the RSA around 2012, I was working on behavioural science and from that vantage point climate change looked like it was a problem designed to be ignored by human beings. For instance, Dan Gilbert used evolutionary psychology to point out that there’s no obvious bad guy (perhaps not even fossil fuel companies, when you consider our complicity in using them), it is not emotive enough to violate our moral sensibilities, it is not immediate enough to feel like a threat and it’s unfolding too gradually to evoke a reactive response. Behavioural economist Oliver Payne gave an elegant spin on this kind of account (of which there are many) of why, in the developed world at least, we are not rising up. The effects of climate change are distant in four dimensions: not here, not now, not me, and not clear.

But here’s the dark hope. It is here. It is now. It is me. And it is clear. There are many more dramatic stories, some lethal and devastating, but since I am potentially part of this putative moderate flank let me put it in undramatic personal terms as an indication of how we begin to come feel that we are not just on the edge of the cliff but already over it. In July an eagerly anticipated post-lockdown trip to Scotland planned with my older son was cancelled because the sleeper train couldn’t leave Euston due to unprecedented flooding. A few weeks later the whole family chose to stay indoors on a ‘sunny day’ in Cornwall due to the unprecedented Met Office advice about the intensity of the heat wave. And it’s a first world problem, no doubt, but my wife and I decided not to buy a property near the sea, as we had long hoped to, simply because we looked into credible projections and decided significantly rising sea levels were inevitable in the near future while adequate flood defences were not.

People are beginning to realise both that climate collapse is here with us, it will get worse, that our politicians are not going to save us, and that in a way we don’t quite understand yet, it is up to us to set the agenda with greater resolve. It is already happening, though not fast enough.

Clive Hamilton once wrote that we live in a phase of history where power is diverging from knowledge, and sadly, on climate at least, that still seems true. The situation is really quite grim, and we cannot change the facts. But we can change our idea of power and our relationship to it. That’s partly why action leads to hope, rather than vice-versa, because our sense of power is dynamic and we gain vitality and perspective by doing what we can, which is usually more than we think. 

Main image: NOAA @ Unsplash

Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.